The Mahna Mahna Phenomena
Puppets are one of the most powerful emotive tools in society. This may sound ridiculous and that is perfectly okay. Puppets are ridiculous. However, with the help of a puppeteer, puppets have the advantage of scrutinizing and commentating on life through their own unique lens. Of course, humans understand that puppets are the instrument of a puppeteer, but this doesn’t reduce their value. The important thing about puppetry is that humans are not the ones performing, but rather guiding. The inanimate object is performing and that is what makes puppets so captivating. Puppets have acted as valuable teaching tools for centuries, guiding the audience to empathize and learn. Puppets can spark change and emotion as no other form of art or communication can; this power should be understood by the puppeteer and used to reach larger audiences of all ages to discuss important issues and events in the world. Allowing humans to observe life challenges through the lens of puppets can foster greater empathy, understanding, and rationality within their hearts and minds. Essentially, puppets can help cultivate more emotionally grounded humans.
The sometimes predictable cycle of life tends to be draining and monotonous for us as human beings. The opportunity to escape this pattern is intriguing and wanted by many. Puppets present a chance to exist within another world; the world of the inanimate. In a desperate attempt to release ourselves from the heavy presence of the “real world”, we will willingly cooperate in any safe fantasy we are offered. No matter what role someone plays in a performance, be it performer, director, audience member, etc, as long as they are witnessing a performance, specifically a live performance, they no longer exist in a comprehensible space; they have chosen to investigate this unreal realm.
First, it is important to understand at which point the puppet is “alive” and at which point it is “inanimate,” and how that applies to a theatrical setting. Puppets are not “real” in the traditional sense, but they still hold an incredible amount of power, especially when they are portrayed as living beings. The emotional range of puppets has developed a great deal over time. In their early beginnings, they were used mainly as figures to represent certain historic events, but over time the emotional capacities of puppets have been explored and expanded. Shows such as Sesame Street have proven that modern puppets embody personalities and can express complicated feelings. These make them the valuable tools that they are for educational purposes. Puppets are not limited to Kermit the Frog-like felt hand puppets, they can be wooden marionettes, human-sized creatures made of sticks, or simply inanimate objects such as a water bottle, broom, or napkin. The possibilities are endless when it comes to crafting and experimenting with puppets. Anything inanimate can be animated with a willingness from the puppeteer to put their energy into the object.
Contemplate that actors have many ways in which to express their feelings, such as their body movements and facial expressions. The audience empathizes with the actors because of these gestures. Puppets do not have the same range of expression, yet a glove with two googly eyes can produce powerful expressions and also elicit reactions from the audience. Similarly, a hat and a coat are just costume pieces, but on a clothes rack, they can resemble a human being and become a dance partner. The opportunities for exploration and experimentation are truly limitless when working with inanimate objects in a theatre. In short, with a little creative tweaking, inanimate objects can “become human-like” even when they do not look remotely human.
Throughout history, artists have experimented with the possibilities of puppetry, and as such, the many uses for puppets have evolved over time. The craft began as a tool for ritual or religious ceremonies, spanning back to the 5th century B.C. Rod puppets, hand puppets, shadow puppets, marionettes, and flat figures are some of the most well-known early forms of puppetry. Puppets can be as small or smaller than a finger or larger than a human. Puppets were used to tell stories before theatre was even a developed art; they essentially paved the way for storytelling. Puppets are no longer used for religious ceremonies, but rather for educational purposes and as tools for psychological investigation; both are specifically aimed towards audiences of young children.
From puppetry, performance theatre blossomed. As defined in the article, “The Theatricality of Objects: Object Theatre Beyond the Puppet” by Åndi Hanske, “The term ‘object theatre’ emerges from the world of puppets. It describes a form of puppetry that utilizes found, or real, objects in puppeteering, to create anthropomorphic characters or to symbolize figures, places, landscapes or metaphorical ideas.” This form of theatre is widely experimented with today and it opens yet another realm of possibility in the performing arts space. As explained by Hanske in the article, “All objects can be defined by how they transform, disrupt, or modify something else, reconfiguring the relations of any social arrangement. It rejects the distinction between subjects and objects and thus attempts to reconfigure the role and nature of agency in respect to how material objects might be understood, reinstating nonhuman elements as active co-creators in establishing social, cultural and political effects.” Object theatre proves that the art of performance is flexible and experimental and inanimate and animate beings are equally valuable in theatre, each with varying strengths.
An important aspect of puppeteering is understanding that puppets will only care as much as the puppeteer lets them, meaning they will only move with the same amount of effort as their puppeteer. After all, a puppet’s personality is only projected through them, not necessarily fulfilled by the object. However, people sympathize so deeply with puppets that it is difficult to imagine these characters as mere objects. This kind of strain between the two worlds of puppetry (i.e., animate vs inanimate) is precisely what makes it so captivating. In fact, this medium is so compelling that it is arguably easier to invest in the puppet rather than the actor because the liveliness of the puppet depends largely upon the audience’s reaction. The puppet will only come alive in the viewer’s heads if they allow it. With human actors, the audience already knows they are alive, but it still can be difficult to believe that they are a character if people in the audience know the actor personally or if the actor cannot “sell” themselves as the character. With an inanimate puppet, the audience can more readily believe the puppet is a certain character because it is not living, therefore has no boundaries to its possibilities. As said in the article, Between Human and Object: Performing Artists on the Possibilities of Puppets”, “the crucial point about puppets is that they are real and unreal at the same time.” People are enthralled by this internal battle between their understanding of the real and imaginary worlds. The fine line between “inanimate” and “animate” in the theatre is indeed tricky to understand but it relies on a working relationship between the puppeteer, the puppet, and the audience. When the three work together, puppets provide an outlet for our need for emotional catharsis. They do so because they have no guile. They pretend to be real, but they never mean to convince us that they are real. They allow us to bring our realities into a safe space and then explore it in ways that allow us to tap into our emotions and varying perspectives.
Typically, puppets are believed to communicate light, fun topics, but more importantly, they hold this incredible ability to present heavy topics that allow us to gain access to scary parts of our emotional core. Consider this: you are safely sitting in the audience of a show about death, but you are not dying or watching anyone else die. You are still hoping to feel something frightful or heartbreaking, after all, theatre exists to evoke emotions. Throughout the performance, you get to know a puppet character; you dig into its psyche and experience its highs, lows, and everything in between; you form a bond with this being. Then, the puppet dies. The puppeteer steps away from the puppet and suddenly, all that exists is an inanimate object, no longer a character. Everything you thought you knew about this being has been ripped away from you. It is jarring, it is tragic, and it is magical.
A wonderful example of this kind of deep connection can be found in the article, “Power in Puppetry ” by Miranda Wright when she states, “In order to make good on his promise, the puppet offered to provide a demonstration of death itself. He offered to die in front of us. When the moment came, I couldn’t breathe. As the puppeteer behind the curtain lifted his hands from the puppet’s body, I realized there truly was no life left in my new friend. I watched a life end, and sat in the theater crying.” This kind of deep, emotional reaction makes it clear that a performance is successful once the artist has put their effort into it, but even more so, once the audience has allowed themselves to accept the performance as real. Wright had this experience because she saw the marionettes “breathe” and “come to life” and she accepted that as natural. She kept her mind and heart open to the possibilities of the performance and it touched her deeply. It explored new domains of empathy within her, allowing her to tap into her own feelings of loss and sorrow. This death landed so deeply also because not only did the puppet die on a theatrical level, but it lost its life literally; it was merely a heap of materials, no longer a friend with a soul.
If this had been an actor portraying death, it would still have been compelling, but so much of our reaction is a critique of how well the actor mimicked death, so the performance aspect distracts us from our visceral reaction to the reality of death. In fact, the only way a human could portray death in the same powerful way would be for them to literally die onstage. Since that is not a viable option, puppets are as close to a real death as it can get on a stage. When a puppet portrays death, it is raw, it is clumsy, and it allows us to supply the reality by ourselves; the drama takes place in our hearts and that is what makes puppets such an incredible vehicle for storytelling. They step away from the idea of performance and they just exist as they are and allow the audience to feel the emotions as they arise. Puppeteer Mark Down illustrated this idea beautifully when he stated, “it is not puppeteers who make puppets come alive. The puppet lives in the audience’s imagination. We try to steer that, and perhaps persuade it to go somewhere exciting, but to be honest we don’t have a huge amount of control over it.” The world of the puppet exists in a space where there are no outside influences or distractions; it is 100% open to interpretation.
Rest assured, not all empathy has to come from a heart-wrenching puppet show about death. A well-known, light-hearted example of this comes from the catchy video clip of the “Mahna Mahna” song from The Muppet Show. There are websites dedicated to puppetry fandom and, more specifically, Sesame Street and The Muppets; Ryan Roe facilitates one such website. In his commentary “Mahna Mahna, Yes… But Why,” Roe notes, “Clearly, when we watch ‘Mahna Mahna,’ we’re seeing a reflection of ourselves that causes a spark of recognition to flare up inside us,” Roe goes on to explain that members of the audience can either empathize more strongly with “the Snowths,” which are the pair of pink puppets who sing “doo doo doo doo,’ and “have clearly spent copious amounts of time carefully rehearsing for this performance” or with “Mahna Mahna,” (the interrupting, hippie-like puppet) who “is a true free spirit. He has an insatiable urge to express his individualism and he’s going to do it even if the results are too chaotic for the Snowths to handle. He’s the nonconformist, the iconoclast.” Viewers of this performance are drawn to either character (consciously or not). They are able to relate to the characters and find humor and a sense of ridiculousness within themselves, which is not only enjoyable but extremely comforting to the human psyche.
Various aspects of performance contribute to theatrical success. Blocking, lighting, advertising, and preparedness are a few among many. Emotion is one of the most crucial components of creating an influential performance. Emotion must be shared, confronted, and accepted. Not only must the performers engage with their strongest emotions on stage, but they must create an atmosphere where the audience can openly observe them while they’re at their most vulnerable.
Puppetry is a theatrical art form that makes great use of the emotional aspect of theatre. Unfortunately, people tend to view puppetry as a childish practice, rather than a powerful and important art form that is often practiced in a professional setting. The art of puppetry shouldn’t be overlooked because it makes use of emotions that other art forms do not. In order to understand the art of puppetry, it is vital to recognize how and why emotions are processed differently in terms of puppetry as compared to human performers. This idea has been studied in theatre arts as an exploration of the human mind regarding puppets as characters. However, some have proposed that emotion distracts the audience from thinking critically about the performance on stage. Berthold Brecht was one of the most outspoken supporters of this idea during his time in the early to mid-1900s.
As outlined in “Engaging Emotion in Theatre: A Brechtian Model in Theatre History”, Paul Woodruff explains how Brecht believed that “an empathic spectator could not take a critical attitude towards a character or the character’s situation because he-the empathic spectator-would feel on his own behalf what he supposed the character to feel.” This type of non-emotional theatre is referred to as “epic theatre.” Rather than experiencing a performance in an artistically appreciative and genuine way, it is experienced straightforwardly. Brecht essentially worked to eliminate the illusion of the theatre and keep the audience as objective as possible. He would often keep stage lamps in full view, use minimal props, etc. to remind the audience that they were in a theatrical setting, so as to keep them empathetically and emotionally neutral. Many theatre professionals would argue that “epic theatre” defeats the purpose of the performance by stripping away the glamor and amazement, but that is exactly how Brecht liked it; he wanted to challenge the audience, rather than dazzle them.
Brecht also crafted characters in hopes the audience would not empathize with them. This seems like self-sabotage because if the audience cannot form emotional connections with the characters, they are not going to pay attention to the performance; character development is the driving force of a strong plot. Interestingly, Brecht’s audiences still empathized with even Brecht’s evil characters. This validates that humans are hardwired to empathize with characters that exist in a separate reality.
Brecht did not explain whether he believed all empathy was negative, or if there were certain situations where it was acceptable or useful. Also, Brecht failed to explain why exactly he believed empathy prevented audience members from thinking critically. Today, many in the profession believe empathy enhances the viewer’s experience and inspires the viewer to analyze the work deeper. While it is important for the audience to consider the performance critically, emotion plays an essential role in ensuring they connect with the art and characters on a deeper level. It is still difficult to say why Bertold Brecht took his unique approach to theatre, but he left future artists with a counter-intuitive approach to this art form.
Empathy is embedded in human nature and absolutely belongs in theatre. The theatre is a place for experimentation, for passion, and for expression. As stated in the article “Emotions, Empathy and Drama” by Irina Yakubovskaya, “Empathy has been inscribed in the history of drama since the known beginning of it, as well as in the history of humankind. In the review article, Bernhardt and colleagues (2012) conclude that multiple studies, mostly based on empathy for pain, showed that ‘empathic responses recruit, to some extent, brain areas similar to those engaged during the corresponding ﬁrst-person state’ (p.). Linderberger (2010) describes the mirror neuronal process as two consecutive phases: stage one – imitation of the observed actions, second – internalization of the information and as a result the understanding of it (p.4). Those two stages may indeed constitute true empathy, and yet they only seem to be manifested in someone who is experiencing the event/emotion/story vicariously. When applied to the people impersonating and embodying characters in a story, the empathy cannot be enough.” The entire existence of puppetry depends on the audience’s ability to empathize with the characters. Watching a puppet show objectively requires no guide; no preparation. Without emotional reciprocation, puppets would not be effective tools for performance. Humans are not going to pay attention to a sock with googly eyes or a wooden spoon with a face unless they feel something. The puppet by itself constitutes no soul, however, the animated puppet with a voice and personality suddenly is a living being; it grabs the human interest. This character now sparks an emotional reaction and, instead of simply staring at an inanimate object, the audience is watching a friend; going through its story with it. The experience is not only more enjoyable but also memorable. This is all to say that removing emotion from the theatre, as Brecht believes is necessary, is simply futile. Puppetry and theatre as a whole is drained of its color without empathy.
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